Taking Action to Move DEIA Initiatives Forward
Several years ago, retailer Event Network developed a Common Thread philosophy, the principles of which address opportunities around diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA). Curious as to what other Association of Zoos and Aquarium (AZA) members were doing relative to DEIA, they talked to representatives of OdySea Aquarium in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Denver Zoo in Denver, Colo.; and Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash.; for an article featured in the September 2022 issue of AZA Connect magazine.
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Following up on that conversation to see what else can be learned, Event Network interviewed members of the AZA community from Oregon Zoo in Portland, Ore.; Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, Ga.; Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Fla.; and New England Aquarium in Boston, Mass.―all of whom hold DEIA roles within their respective organizations.
Oregon Zoo, Zoo Atlanta, Mote, and New England Aquarium are taking actions to provide a welcoming and inclusive experience for all guests and employees. For them, DEIA demands a comprehensive approach that fosters environments where everyone has equal access, opportunities, and voice. It recognizes that inclusivity and accessibility are essential pillars of a thriving and vibrant organization.
Charetta Long, DEIJA program manager at Oregon Zoo, has been adapting quickly to her job as the program manager of DEIJA at Oregon Zoo. “I’m new to the zoo world,” said Long. “This role has many layers that I didn’t expect. The work I’m doing is not only going to help community engagement and relationship building for the Zoo and our communities of color, but it will also highlight for Zoo staff what it means to support a mission that centers on animal welfare and human dignity.”
At Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, engagement with underrepresented communities is rooted in the vision of their founder.
“Creating and maintaining opportunities for all to excel in the marine science industry is at the forefront of Mote’s mission,” said Amanda Felix, aquarium biologist III and diversity and inclusion advisor to the president and chief executive officer.
“Mote was founded by Dr. Eugenie Clark, who paved the way for female scientists during a time when the field was heavily dominated by men, and now we have a responsibility to create a similar path for other underrepresented minorities. The problems facing our oceans have no boundaries, and they impact us all. Increasing minority representation in marine research and aquarium sciences is a testament to Mote’s ‘Ocean for All’ commitment.”
In his role as Senior Vice President of DEI for Zoo Atlanta, Cary S. Burgess has focused on making the Zoo more accessible.
“We offer a scholarship program for our Summer Safari Camp that provides a free week of camp, lunch, and snacks for children from Title I Schools in metro Atlanta. We also partner with the Atlanta Preservation Center on their City of Refuge program, which offers summer educational opportunities for children from underserved communities.”
Jessica Tantin, director of DEIA for New England Aquarium shared a similar focus on outreach.
“We have invited the founder of Black in Marine Science for a lecture,” said Tantin. “We’ve hosted a diverse set of women leaders in environmental justice for Women’s History Month and partnered with the Hispanic Access Foundation to present a film screening elevating the stories of Latine, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.”
Creating a welcoming environment for all people is a key tenant of any DEIA program, however many of these industry leaders acknowledge a need to make strides in diversity and accessibility within their organizations, and venues.
Burgess described how Zoo Atlanta has been working to make their experiences more accessible.
“In 2022, we opened a new interpretive experience at our African Savanna Complex that connects guests who are deaf or hard of hearing or visually impaired to the animals of the African Savanna, as well as the broader mission and work of the Zoo.”
“At New England Aquarium, we engaged the Perkins Consulting Group to provide us with an accessibility audit,” said Tantin. “That audit will guide our efforts to make our facilities more accessible and inclusive. Our goal is to contribute to the well-being and mental health of both visitors and staff by letting them know in no uncertain terms that we stand with them and that together, we can continue to make progress toward creating a community that celebrates all individuals and their unique identities.”
Long talked about Oregon Zoo’s first campus planning session and the benefit of engaging different self-identified groups in a collaborative space.
“This gave me an opportunity to learn what challenges are faced by marginalized groups when accessing the Zoo. I needed this information to be able to produce language and actionable opportunities that removed barriers for as many individuals as I could. I felt honored to have created a pathway for that opportunity to build our community’s success as a collective.”
“In February,” said Felix, “Mote Aquarium launched a new interactive display developed in collaboration with Yocum African American History Association. Trailblazers in STEM highlights innovative leaders from diverse backgrounds in STEM. Mote hosted a panel discussion that was open to the local community during Black History Month to celebrate the new exhibit and highlight the importance of honoring and nurturing diversity in STEM. I’m also proud to say that Mote Aquarium launched its first stipend-supported internships in the Aquarium this year! We currently have two students focusing on aquarium sciences and animal care in the fish and invertebrate aquarium husbandry department. They are provided with a stipend, free housing, transportation support, and professional development opportunities.”
The opportunity internships provide was echoed by Tantin.
“This has brought fresh perspectives, enriched our culture, and contributed to a more inclusive workplace. We have welcomed the most diverse intern cohort in the past five years after incorporating training on unconscious bias and providing tips to mitigate biases during the interview process. We recognize these wins with the understanding that we still have much work to do in this area.”
Long expressed how gratifying it has been to see the Oregon Zoo community partners engaging and sharing their vision, mission, values, and ideas.
“Our meetings have shown me the value of relational interactions,” said Long. “The real win is the relationship that comes from listening to and learning about the needs of the collective community outside of a recreational visit to the zoo. That cultural awareness is the key to maintaining the strong connections I want to build.”
If there was a common thread that unified these four passionate industry leaders, it was that in the wake of these great initial strides, there is a great deal of excitement and enthusiasm for the next opportunity to grow and expand their programs.
“As a former Mote Aquarium intern,” said Felix, “I’ve seen firsthand how crucial husbandry science and animal care internships and experience can be to enter the aquarium and zoo fields. I’ve also seen that the field of animal care severely lacks racial and socioeconomic diversity. Providing educational opportunities that provide participants resources including mentorship and financial support are a game-changer. My focus is to build upon these programs to create exciting new opportunities within Mote Aquarium to support underrepresented minorities pursuing animal science careers.”
“We are very excited about a new partnership between Zoo Atlanta and Fort Valley State University, an HBCU,” said Burgess. “This partnership will create a learning experience for students and faculty with our new state-of-the-art Animal Health Center and will include collaborative research projects with Fort Valley State, Georgia Tech, and Zoo Atlanta and includes a long-range goal of developing an employment pipeline to AZA institutions.”
“Conservation and social justice are closely connected,” said Long, “and to truly advance Oregon Zoo’s mission, we need to make sure we’re considering factors such as representation and exclusion, privilege, and systemic racism every step of the way.”
Tantin also shared this validation of the work they are doing: “The New England Aquarium experience matters to all people because it offers a unique opportunity for connection, education, and appreciation of our diverse marine life. By embracing DEIA initiatives, we foster an inclusive and welcoming environment where individuals from all backgrounds can engage with and learn about our animals and conservation work. Through our exhibits and programs, we strive to provide a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness between marine ecosystems and human communities. We believe that everyone should have access to these transformative experiences and feel a sense of belonging within our institution.”
“No child should grow up without the opportunity to experience the Zoo. The experiences found here can shape a person’s future when it comes to connections with wildlife and wild places. The connections made here can help create personal action for wildlife―and these messages are too important to exclude anyone from being exposed to them.”
Hero image: Amanda Felix at a Trailblazers in STEM Event. Credit: © Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium.